When Barry O’Farrell became NSW Liberal Party leader in 2017 his mission was to turn the Liberals into “the natural party of government”.
This dream status had been achieved by Labor under Premier Neville Wran (1976-1986) and Barry O’Farrell desperately wanted the Liberals to claim the same honour. So why is he quitting now?
Prime Minister Scott Morrison left the announcement to late in the daywhen Canberra’s media was preoccupied with the floods and hail storms that followed the weeks of catastrophic bushfires and choking smoke.
The single page press release, largely ignored by the media, stated that Mr Barry O’Farrell had been appointed as Australia’s High Commissioner to India.
In the league table of diplomatic postings, New Delhi isn’t as impressive as Washington, London or Beijing. But with more than one billion people and central to the tug-of-war between the US and China, Mr O’Farrell’s appointment to India is overtly political and highly significant diplomatically and militarily.
His knowledge of India is formidable. In the past 20 years he has been a frequent visitor to India and formed a close working relationship with Narendra Modi who is now India’s Prime Minister and leader of the sectarian anti-Moslem Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
After US President Donald Trump’s official visit to India last weekend, BJP gangs attacked Moslems with clubs, knives and swords, killing hundreds and maiming many more. TV footage showed Modi’s police standing by while encouraging the street violence.
Born an “army brat” who lived on Australian army bases, Mr O’Farrell is closely in tune with US plans to step up its anti-China aggression – by imposing trade sanctions and encircling China with a military build-up of warplanes, warships and submarines.
Scott Morrison has previously adopted a policy of trading with “good” China but ignoring “bad” China and its human rights violations. Mr O’Farrell’s appointment is a clear indication that the Federal Coalition has decided to toe Washington’s line by dumping China as a trading partner and replacing it with coal-fired India.
In the coming days and weeks, Scott Morrison can be expected to wedge Labor’s Anthony Albanese by committing the Coalition to the Adani project in central Queensland and backing coal exports to India.
The diplomatic snub to Beijing could not be more pointed. Australia has downgraded its diplomatic posting to China and conflated its diplomatic presence in India. To Beijing’s old guard this represents a “loss of face” which will not go unanswered.
Morrison, a former NSW Liberal Party director (as was Barry O’Farrell), will exploit the contradiction in Mr Albanese’s current position: he supports renewable energy in inner-city Melbourne and Sydney but fossil fuel in Queensland to placate right-wing Liberals and Nationals in his joint party room.
By accepting the diplomatic post, Mr O’Farrell is following the advice once given by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan: “At home, you always have to be a politician: when you’re abroad, you almost feel yourself a statesman.”
The former Premier is one of the great survivors of NSW politics, and senior Liberal colleagues are fond of telling the apocryphal story: “A nuclear holocaust turns Australia into a continent of rubble. The only survivors are cockroaches – and Barry O’Farrell.”
On the domestic front, Mr O’Farrell has provided spine, direction and policy for the Liberals since their triumphant election victory in March 2011.
Even after his abrupt resignation over the notorious gift of
a $3,000 bottle of Grange, Mr O’Farrell has served his two successors – Premiers Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian – with his forceful brand of experience.
By diving overboard from HMAS Gladys when it is listing and taking water, Mr O’Farrell is sending a political signal that his time is up … and maybe Premier Berejiklian’s as well.
Without Mr O’Farrell’s political protection who will guard Premier Berejiklian’s back now?
Alex Mitchell is our regular NSW political correspondent. His commentary appears every Friday. A former Sydney Sun-Herald State Political Editor, his most recent book is Murder in Melbourne: The untold story of Aiia Maasarwe. For more information or to purchase see http://www.cometherevolution.com.au/murder-in-melbourne/